Migrating toward respectability

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The last time we saw the good Orioles, the team with the once-rich heritage and proud tradition, was 1997, when they won 98 games. They have since taken a unique slide: They are the only team in history to follow a 98-win season with 12 consecutive seasons under .500, capped last year by a 64-win disappointment that included 13 straight losses in September.

The Orioles will not be approaching 98 wins this year, and they will not be going to the playoffs in the brutal American League East, but this could be the season when significant progress will be seen. They finished last season with four straight wins in October, and even though they have a crushing early schedule (first 16 days without an off day; 28 of first 35 games against teams with a winning record in '09), this might be the year they push .500.

"We are improved," said Orioles manager Dave Trembley. "It is time for us to step up. It is time for us to turn the corner."

The optimism comes in two forms. First, the Orioles upgraded four different positions with one trade and three signings. Kevin Millwood, who was 13-10 with a 3.67 ERA last year, was acquired from Texas to provide a more veteran presence at the top of a rotation that included eight pitchers who made their major league debuts last season. The Orioles in 2009 posted the highest ERA (5.15) in the league, and the third highest in club history. Mike Gonzalez was signed as a free agent to be the closer, replacing Jim Johnson, a hard-throwing sinkerballer who will return to the role in which he is best suited: pitching the eighth inning.

"In this division," said Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, "you better hold leads in the eighth or ninth innings. If you don't, you're in big trouble."

Miguel Tejada returned to Baltimore on a one-year contract to play third base after playing the first 13 years of his career at shortstop. Tejada may labor at times defensively, as do many shortstops that move to third, but he is buying time until Josh Bell, a big, switching-hitting third baseman, is ready, probably by Opening Day 2011. Garrett Atkins was signed to play first base; he is buying time until Brandon Snyder is ready to play every day (likely early next year). Millwood, Gonzalez, Tejada and Atkins join several proven veterans, led by Roberts, right fielder Nick Markakis and right-handed starter Jeremy Guthrie.

"We're excited about the changes," Roberts said. "We brought in players who are a little older, but still in the prime of their career. In this division, you better have guys who know what they're doing."

But the biggest reason for optimism with the Orioles comes from their young players, some of whom made their major league debuts last season, while others established themselves as stars of the future. Last spring, Trembley predicted that center fielder Adam Jones would be "the most improved player in the American League this year," and Trembley wasn't far off. Jones, 24, made the All-Star team, and hit .277 with 19 homers and 70 RBIs in 473 at-bats.

Left fielder Nolan Reimold made his major league debut last year, and finished with a .279 average and 15 home runs in 358 at-bats. And then there is catcher Matt Wieters, the prize prospect in an Orioles farm system that was once so dry, and now is churning out players. Wieters, 23, hit .288 with nine home runs in 354 at-bats. He may not be Joe Mauer, as the hype machine predicted, but all who have seen him think he will be a very good player.

"I'm so much more comfortable this spring," Wieters said. "Instead of having eyes wide open and wondering, 'What's going on?' now there's a feel for what's going on. Last year, I got a huge ovation before I even took an at-bat in the major leagues, which was great. But now it's time to prove myself. Now it's time to really work with the pitching staff."

Roberts was Wieters' mentor last year. "My one piece of advice for him was that he will never, ever live up to the expectations that people put on you, no one could,'' Roberts said. "He hit .350 two years in a row in the minor leagues, he wasn't going to just walk into things up here and do that. I mean, we had a sellout for his first game, and it was because of him. So I told him to forget the expectations, have fun and realize that it's a process. He handled things so maturely last year, way beyond his years."

There are potential stars coming in the rotation, also. Right-hander Chris Tillman, who was acquired with Jones and others from Seattle three years ago in the deal for Erik Bedard, made 12 major league starts last year. They weren't impressive statistically, but what he learned should help him immeasurably as he moves into his first full season in the major leagues.

"His stuff is unbelievable,'' said Wieters. "He can ramp it up to the mid-90s, and has a great 12-to-6 curveball. His changeup is very useful, and this spring, he's working on a cutter.''

The best young pitcher in the system is also one of the best young pitchers in the game, Brian Matusz, 23, who went 5-2 in eight starts last year. "Two years ago, he was the best pitcher I saw in the Arizona Fall League,'' one scout said. "Last year, he was one of the best pitchers I saw in the minor leagues. He has a great feel for pitching. Not many kids do.''

He will be the ace of the staff before long.

"He has tremendous poise,'' said Jones. "Last year, he would give up a hit or a walk, and he'd get right back on the mound. Nothing bothered him. And he has pretty good stuff, too.''

With a rotation of Millwood, Guthrie, Matusz, Tillman and Brad Bergesen, who went 7-5 with a 3.43 ERA last year as a rookie, the Orioles have the makings of a good rotation. Compare that to the past decade of losing in Baltimore. A veteran writer in Baltimore was asked to pick the Orioles' five best starters for the past decade. He chose Bedard, Guthrie, Rodrigo Lopez, Daniel Cabrera and Sidney Ponson. Together they went 248-270 in that span.

But now, finally, things are starting to turn in Baltimore.

"We're going in the right direction,'' Trembley said. "We have depth now in the minor leagues, also. We didn't sign a bunch of six-year free agents this winter. The guys we have are ours, we developed them. Tejada said it best. He said we're not running our player developmental department in the big leagues anymore. Now it's about the team. It's about winning.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.